Hayes Carll felt “disconnected in a lot of different ways” as he began writing songs for his new album, What It Is, whose tracks “Times Like These” and “Be There” premiere exclusively below. Suffice to say that the Nashville singer-songwriter not only reconnected but came to grips in a big way with a gamut of feelings on the 12-song set.
“I think the starting point for me is I’m a songwriter and I’m writing about my life. It’s what I do,” Carll, a multiple Americana Music Awards winner, tells Billboard. “What I tried to do specifically on this record was to be as honest as I could. I was writing about themes that were important to me — about my relationships, about the state of the world around me and my observation of that and how it made me feel — and then about my connection to all of it, and the search for that.
“I didn’t set out with a theme in mind, and I’m not sure one ever completely came together. But I wasn’t worried about how it all tied together. I was looking at each songs as, ‘This is something that I want to say.'”
Carll had help, too, in focusing that mission for What It Is, due out Feb. 15 on Dualtone and the follow-up to 2016’s Lovers and Leavers. He co-wrote songs with his fiancé Allison Moorer, Matraca Berg, Charlie Mars, Adam Landry and Lolo. Moorer also co-produced with Brad Jones. “Allison knew inside [me] and knew how I feel about music,” Carll explains, “and what I was hoping to do and trying to accomplish and could speak that shorthand in the studio. She could translate that for me to Brad Jones and to the musicians in the room. That took a huge load off of me. It was a blessing for me to feel like I had my own interpreter to help articulate my vision in the studio, because she’s much better at that than I am. I felt like I was in really good hands.”
Carll’s re-engagement — or, as he puts it, “getting off the sidelines” — also made him confident to get topical in several of the new songs, including “American Dream” and “Times Like These.” “It’s just an expression of frustration with the political climate,” Carll says. “It felt appropriate and it felt right for me, like what I needed to do. I don’t feel the need to hide my opinions anymore. There was probably a time I did but that time, feeling like I need to please everyone, has passed. I realize that’s an impossibility, and the longer I try to do that the more dissatisfied I’m going to be. Now what makes me feel plugged-in and connected and in touch with the world around me is to be engaged by it, to comment on it where I feel it’s necessary, either in my private life or creatively as an artist.”
Carll starts touring to support What It Is on Feb. 15 in his hometown of Houston, 10 days after he plays the Grand Ole Opry. He currently has bookings into May, including some South By Southwest shows, with more to come. “What I’ve realized is I have an amazing life by all sorts of measurable metrics,” Carll says. “If I was dissatisfied with it, that was my problem. I just needed to change my goals and what I was working for, and being present and being engaged in whatever I was doing at that point in time was key — whether that’s sitting down to write a song or having a conversation or taking a walk or doing a gig. It’s still a work in progress, but I find I’m a lot happier and more content now with whatever happens in my life.”